Top Must-See Fantasy Films

The Best Fantasy Movies of All Time

Fantasy films tread a thin line: engendering fierce loyalty by fans and at times a bit of mockery from those who either can't suspend their disbelief enough or feel the source material was egregiously wronged. However, unlike a number of films that make far more sense when viewed during the era they were made, fantasy films have an ability to transcend the decades … that is, as long as people continue to forgive/appreciate the state of technology when they were made.

Before anyone gets up in arms about what qualifies as fantasy, I've separated sci-fi fantasy from the list; hence no Dune or Barbarella. This is more about alternate reality/mythology and I've excluded animated films altogether as those largely fall into a different approach to the genre and usually for a very young demographic. As for ranking, that notion goes out the window. Separating most of these films out from one another is such a personal decision so the list is alphabetical. However there's merit in each of them and so if you consider yourself a fantasy film fan and somehow haven't seen one of these, you know what to do.

Clash of the Titans (1981) / Conan the Barbarian (1982) / Krull (183)

Clash of the Titans

While there are certainly differences among these three films, they are all classic examples of the sword & sorcery subset of fantasy films.  Clash of the Titans is a bit hokey but features remarkable stop motion work by Ray Harryhausen.

The entire Conan series is yet another of the former Governator’s iconic characters, I very much recommend watching his DVD commentary as it turns an already slightly comical film (thanks to the wooden nature of it all) into a bizarrely hilarious effort while listening to Schwarzenegger describe what’s happening on-screen like cinematic play-by-play.

Krull is by no means a film that won over critics but it’s an almost epic adventure as a prince seeks to save his bride from a powerful monster and it features flying Clydesdales!  (I think you know what beverage to enjoy while watching this one).

The Dark Crystal (1982)

The Dark Crystal
Universal Pictures

A very ambitious project from Jim Henson, the combination of puppetry, creature design and sheer imagination came together perfectly to tell this fantastical tale. What’s nice is that even though it comes from the creator of The Muppets, doesn’t shy away from being decidedly on the darker side. This is essentially about one race of creatures committing genocide to remain in power, yet it’s still pretty great for kids (and Fizzgig is adorable).

Excalibur (1981)

Orion Pictures

This is a bit of a departure from the rest of the films on the list; skewing much more towards adult audiences (which isn’t a bad thing).  What elevates director John Boorman’s tackling of Arthurian legend is an ability to feel like we are being transported back to medieval times while also giving the tale a slightly stylized aesthetic. 

The manner in which the mysticism is handled grounds the project, rather than allowing things to become simply a tale of magic versus metal.  It examines the very nature of each character, each of whom have been approached in a myriad of other ways in all of the various incarnations the tale has undergone. 

It’s not a short film (141 minutes) and I wouldn’t recommend starting it before bedtime but if you’re at all interested in a different take on the mythology, this is definitely one to watch.

Harry Potter (2001-2011)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Warner Bros.

The second highest grossing franchise in cinema history, The Boy Who Lived verses He Who Must Not Be Named captured the imaginations of young and old alike.

The movies were good adaptations of the books for the most part (of course there are items to nitpick, that’s the nature of these things) but what really sets this apart is the high quality of the productions. Although there was a bit of directorial musical chairs going on initially, once David Yates took over in #5, it helped cement the continuity fostered by keeping the cast and crew together for all 8 films.

Labyrinth (1986) / Legend (1985)

TriStar Pictures

I’ve grouped these two together because they’ve almost become companion pieces. This was during an era where fantasy films were given a chance in the mainstream, before they faded from view prior to the relatively recent increase in seriously adapting children’s books.

Legend sees Tom Cruise trying to stop an evil-looking Tim Curry from marrying the woman he loves (Ferris Bueller’s Mia Sara) and dropping the world into eternal night.

Labryinth has Jennifer Connelly trying to navigate a maze to save her brother from the Goblin King (the awesome David Bowie). Each have found their followers and so while I much prefer Bowie to Cruise, to each their own.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
New Line Cinema

Somehow Peter Jackson turned what could have been a huge disaster into a celebrated triumph that even captured the attention of Academy Award voters by the time The Return of the King ushered in the 17 endings. This is one of the most faithful book-to-film transitions I’ve ever seen.

The Neverending Story (1984)

The Neverending Story
Warner Bros.

A childhood favorite, this is one of the purest examples of rewarding imagination in cinema. The magic and wonder of the story, combined with excellent character design and traditional effect work holds up wonderfully even today. There was no budget to attempt something grand and expensive; these were the days where it took a roomful of computers to do what your smart phone can do today.

Sadly, not many filmmakers these days seem to understand that quality live-action effects hold up better than CGI wizardry over time.

The Princess Bride (1987)

The Princess Bride
20th Century Fox

There’s a hilarious scene in The Princess Bride where Wallace Shawn explains that Cary Elwes has made one of the classic blunders in life, going up against a Sicilian when death is on the line. Likewise, I consider it one of the classic blunders in a person’s cinematic experience if they’ve never seen this movie.

Perhaps the finest live-action fairy tale ever put to celluloid, this is timeless and will probably become the kind of experience that parents pass on to their kids for generations to come, if it hasn’t already.

Time Bandits (1981)

Time Bandits
HandMade Films

What’s not to like about a Terry Gilliam film where a group of little people journey across time looking for treasure? Oh, and Sean Connery makes an appearance too.

Trying to actually explain the movie is a fruitless exercise, as is the case with most of Gilliam’s boundlessly imaginative films. What one should know is that there’s more creativity and ingenuity in one frame of this movie than you’re likely to see in any Hollywood blockbuster.

Willow (1988)


This may be last on the list because of the way the alphabet works but it’s not last in my heart (as evidenced by its placement on the Warwick Davis list). It features wonderful and endearing performances, exudes fun and excitement, and will simply put a smile on your face when all is said and done. It’s a nice take on the sword and sorcery genre that trades bloodletting for more family friendly adventure; which in this case is not a bad thing.